Researchers at Iowa State University’s new Wind Energy Manufacturing Laboratory are on a mission to lower the price of wind power down to six cents per kilowatt hour by 2020, and they are taking a somewhat unusual path to get there. Instead of focusing on new wind turbine technology, the research team is working behind the scenes to bring down the cost of manufacturing turbine blades, with the goal of developing new manufacturing systems that could improve productivity by 35 percent.
The Road to Cheaper Wind Power and Solar Power
In some ways, the new lab’s work mirrors an emerging trend in low cost solar power. Rather than focusing narrowly on improving the efficiency of the technology itself, the solar industry has been focusing on the big picture, including cheaper materials, lower manufacturing costs (especially processes that use less energy), and lower installation expenses.
The U.S. Department of Energy Gets It
Regular readers of Cleantechnica will recognize that this big-picture outlook on alternative energy did not emerge all by itself. It has been carefully nurtured under the Obama administration’s manufacturing initiatives, most recently through the Department of Energy’s SunShot program announced earlier this year. The new lab was funded partly with a DOE grant, and the research team also works closely with DOE’s Sandia National Laboratories.
A Cheaper Way to Manufacture Wind Turbines
The Iowa lab’s signature project is a laser scanning device that analyzes how precisely fiberglass fabric will fit into a mold used to manufacture wind turbine blades. The scan is run through a computer that can pick out the tiniest possible flaw that could interfere with the finished blade’s efficiency. The lab is also equipped to develop new non-invasive methods for evaluating turbine blades during the manufacturing process, improve blade edges, and develop automated processes for manipulating fiberglass fabric.
Low Cost Wind Power is Here to Stay
Wind power is already having a significant effect on local energy markets, particularly in Texas, where excess wind power sometimes forces coal and nuclear power plant operators to dump their nighttime output into the grid for next to nothing, to avoid a shut-down. Also in Texas, energy giant NRG recently cancelled two planned nuclear reactors based mainly on future risks revealed by last spring’s nuclear disaster in Japan, but also taking into account the more reliable regulatory framework for wind energy.
A Place in the Sun for Wind Turbines
Speaking of nuclear disasters, one non-technological factor that could ultimately tip the balance in favor of wind power (and solar, too), is the availability of sites where new power generating facilities can be built without posing real or potential danger to human populations – or wildlife, for that matter. The Nature Conservancy recently commissioned a survey showing that ample space exists for wind power on land that is already developed, and the Obama Administration’s Re-Powering America’s Land initiative is specifically geared to creating new green jobs by siting wind and solar installations on brownfields and other derelict lands.
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